Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Phil Covington headshot

International Paper Sponsored Series

Understanding Sustainable Forestry

Deforestation and the Role of Paper Products

By Phil Covington


Great ideas are started on paper. The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper. Justice is rendered on paper. Rights are guaranteed on paper. Freedoms are declared on paper.

All of this was written on the packaging of a ream of paper I just added to my printer as I started this piece, and it is hard to argue with the importance this medium has had with respect to the development of humankind.  

At the same time, paper comes from tree fibers, either from the growing forests or recovered paper. Global deforestation and forest degradation are problems of a global scale, but before addressing the extent to which the insatiable use of paper and the industry behind it is responsible, here's a little context as to the state of the world’s forests.

To start with, about a half of the forests that once covered the earth are gone. Every year, another 13 million hectares disappear (although afforestation adds another eight back), and the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that only about 22 percent of the world's old growth forests remain intact.

On the upside, temperate forests in the northern hemisphere are actually expanding, while on the downside, tropical forests and some temperate forests in the southern hemisphere are shrinking. According to the University of Michigan, two percent of the forest in Amazonia is lost annually, and with it, the ecosystem services the forest supplies.

Those ecosystem services are vital. Wherever forests are found, they provide carbon sequestration, protection against floods, landslides and soil erosion, as well as harboring a rich bio-diversity of plants and animals, and raw materials for medicines, to name but a few things; not to mention the 300 million people that call forests their home around the world. So, as the forests shrink and degrade, where does the focus of the problem fall?

I spoke to Nigel Sizer of the World Resources Institute (WRI), and asked him if he could rank the number one threat to global forestry and, without pause, he replied, "The answer to that is very simple. By far the most significant threat to forests is the expansion of agriculture and agricultural commodities," adding, "the expansion of soy and pasture land, palm oil production and other agricultural activities accounts for probably about 80 percent of tropical deforestation." The paper and pulp industry is a part of that picture too, but Sizer says this is only a small part and very localized, mainly to parts of Indonesia.

But it is not just clear-cutting forests for agriculture that we need to be concerned about. Tropical forests are also subject to selective logging - where specific types of trees are harvested to make products such as plywood, particle board and other solid wood products. This practice doesn't clear forests completely, but as WRI's Sizer explained to me, "It's like a sponge - you poke holes in the canopy and it [the forest] dries out more quickly - and that makes it more prone to fire," a major problem in an ecosystem not naturally fire-prone, and not at all adapted to it. When fire does occur in tropical regions, that land is often lost to forestry and is re-purposed as agricultural land. Sizer adds, "There is a complex interplay between the logging industry and agriculture. Often the same company might be doing both; logging first, then using cash to invest in clearing the remainder for agriculture."

As devastating as this is for the forests themselves, Sizer told me that there is a very real threat that a condition called "Amazon die-back" could occur - a situation where forest degradation leading to moisture loss, in turn causes changes to weather patterns through a series of positive feedbacks. The impact is felt in the forests, but the effects are felt further afield, too. The fear is that a chain reaction could be triggered causing weather pattern changes across the whole of South and possibly even North America, if not globally.

But forest loss is not inevitable. Sizer told me, "Brazil has seen an 80 percent drop in deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon since 2004." He added, "That's an extraordinary achievement." Furthermore, the Brazilian government is intent on bringing that down to zero and shifting to a net re-greening of the country's Amazon region going forward.

As is often the case, correction comes down to providing the right incentives. Sizer told me Brazil has invested heavily in remote sensing technologies, allowing them to clamp down on illegal forest logging within days - bolstering their enforcement efforts. On top of this, the removal of harmful subsidies for inefficient cattle ranching has reduced pressure to convert forest land to pasture, while local government subsidies have been made available so that municipalities are better able to manage forestry properly.

What this illustrates is that forest loss is not an inevitability. If they are managed responsibly with a long term perspective, the resource will continue to thrive. And despite the concerns with respect to delicate tropical ecosystems under threat, it has to be recognized that back here in the U.S., much of the damage to natural forests has already been done. According to the University of Michigan, since 1600, 90 percent of virgin forest in the lower 48 states has been cleared away and threats to forestry remain today. Activities in the past may have decimated old growth forest, and today, proper management and responsible forestry practices are as important here as anywhere else. So what are the threats in the USA?

WRI's "Southern Forests for the Future" website identifies that the biggest threat to U.S. forests is suburban encroachment. The U.S. forest service estimates that between 1992 and 2040, 31 million acres of forest land will be lost to development.

But the impact of the paper industry cannot be ignored, especially when today, the southern United States forests are home to the world's single largest pulp and paper production region in the world.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), globally around 40 percent of the annual industrial wood harvest is processed for paper and paperboard. This figure includes both industrial roundwood and sawmill by-products, and the volume has doubled since the 1960s.

But though that is a huge proportion, Sizer told me, "Most of the pulp and paper in the world comes from plantation-grown wood - fast growing wood with harvesting cycles ranging between five and 20 years," adding, "These are fast growing and well-managed plantations that are on land which was cleared of forest a long, long time ago." The point being, a large wood harvest doesn't necessarily mean further decimation of existing natural forests. But is this the case?

In the U.S., the Dogwood Alliance, an organization focused on protecting southern U.S. forests, has spent the last 15 years putting relentless pressure on the paper industry (and downstream, on the paper-consuming industries) by way of using, in their words, "A combination of grassroots pressure and skillful negotiations to reach corporate boardrooms in a way that makes a difference on the landscape." In one of their reports, they identify that 5-6 million acres of U.S. southern forests are cut down each year to make paper and wood products, and they have clearly placed the paper industry in their crosshairs as being a major threat.

But is this statement accurate? Counter-evidence is easy to find.

Researchers at the USDA Forest Service Products Laboratory (FPL) found that the lowest rates of deforestation occur in regions with the highest rates of industrial wood harvest and forest product production. The research suggests that an economically sound forest products industry promotes forest preservation. Furthermore, U.S. Forest Service data support this economic and land use reality. The number of forested acres in the U.S. South rose from 211.1 million in 1987 to 214.6 million in 2007 (latest data available. (Source: U.S. Forest Service, Forest Resources of the United States, 2007, page 158)

An economic counter-argument is that demand for paper and other forest products provides an incentive to keep growing, harvesting and regenerating planted forests for continuous, sustainable use. Intensive planted forest use helps set aside valuable natural forests for conservation and limited commercial use. With a goal of turning adversaries into allies, the Dogwood Alliance has pointed the way for this important industry in the American South, to leave a smaller impact on natural forests. They advocate for paper producers and landowners to work together to manage forests more responsibly and urge production to come from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified sources, stating that this ensures a paper product was produced in a responsible and sustainable manner. Also Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a recognized North American forest certification program endorsed by PEFC (a global umbrella organization called Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). According to Dovetail Partners, changes in major certification programs in recent years (like FSC and SFI) make it increasingly difficult to differentiate between certification systems in North America.

As of April this year, Dogwood Alliance had entered into dialogue with several major paper companies "to map endangered forests and forests with high conservation value, to discourage the future conversion of natural hardwood forests to pine plantations, to expand FSC certification in the U.S. and globally, and to fund restoration and conservation of key forests in the South." Dogwood Alliance focuses on the paper and biomass industries as key players in the deforestation debate, while other NGOs like WRI see other issues (like development) as more pressing.

At the end of the day, the paper industry need not be a cause of natural forest degradation, or deforestation, and through proper management with independently certified forestry standards, such as FSC and SFI, the supply of paper, fundamental to humankind's development over the years - can remain so responsibly into the future.

Image Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli


Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

Read more stories by Phil Covington